Putting the park in French Creek Parkway

Feb. 21—A multimillion-dollar project set to begin this summer will transform French Creek Parkway and, officials hope, create a new recreation asset that helps link the Meadville area to a larger system of trails in western Crawford County.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) officials described the plan as a "road diet" — French Creek Parkway, which carries routes 6 and 19 from the city of Meadville end of Smock Bridge to Baldwin Street Extension in West Mead Township, will be slimming down.

The 2.5-mile section of the parkway from its intersection with Reynolds Avenue and Bessemer Street to the end at Baldwin Street Extension will be reduced from the current four-lane configuration to a two-lane road where the westbound lanes are now.

The westbound half of the parkway will be reconstructed and will carry two-way traffic. The eastbound lanes will be converted to a multipurpose trail.

The construction timeline is expected to begin by late July and continue into 2025, with variations possible due to the contractor's schedule. The start time is two years later than PennDOT officials projected in 2021, but the final results should provide much more than simply a pothole-free driving experience.

"It's had our attention for several years and we've taken our time to make sure the project really addresses the needs there instead of just rushing to make it smoother," PennDOT spokeswoman Jill Harry said last week. "It may have taken a little bit longer than people would have wanted, but it was because we wanted to do something that would be impactful beyond the smoothness of the road."

Department estimates for the project anticipate a cost range between $10 million to $20 million with a final price tag of nearly $16 million likely — enough to make it the most expensive PennDOT project in Crawford County this year. The work is being paid for through a combination of state and federal funds, including money provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill of 2021. Bids will be advertised May 2 and awarded June 6.

The work will also include intersection improvements where the parkway meets Stan Road and Baldwin Street Park Road; drainage improvements; the creation of five parking spaces at the north end of the trail; and removal of right-of-way fencing on the east side of the parkway between Mead and Reynolds avenues and at various points on both sides of the parkway north of Reynolds, according to project manager Kyle Barker.

The final design of the project, from major elements like the multi-purpose trail to more aesthetic features like the removal of roadside fencing, were strongly influenced by public input and local officials, according to Harry.

Zachary Norwood, director of the Crawford County Planning Office, echoed the sentiment.

"What we've heard from citizens is that they're looking for additional recreational opportunities across Crawford County," Norwood said Tuesday. "We've heard locally in the city of Meadville that folks want to connect and that employers are looking to attract people to our area. Recreation is one of the major draws that we have, so expanding those recreational amenities, we believe at the county, only enhances the economic vitality and future of our communities."

The multipurpose asphalt trail that results will be approximately 10 feet wide, according to Norwood, and will complement a separate Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County (EPACC) project, also expected to be underway soon, to create a trail along French Creek from Bicentennial Park to near the southern end of the French Creek Parkway trail.

"If we're able to make the connections like we're trying to back to the Ernst Trail," said Jim Becker, executive director of EPACC, "all of a sudden that adds to the continuous network of the trail system, which will benefit all of Crawford County and the region."

Ultimately, the hope is to create a connection from Bicentennial Park to the current end of the Ernst Trail near Post Consumer Brands LLC in Kerrtown, according to Peter Oven, a board member of French Creek Recreational Trails Inc. (FCRT), the nonprofit that maintains Ernst Trail.

The organization of volunteers has an agreement in place with Crawford County to similarly maintain the new French Creek Parkway section of trail at no cost to the county. And that's not all, according to Oven — FCRT has its own work planned for this summer. The gravel section of Ernst Trail that extends from the Bean's Auto Service trailhead to Post Consumer Brands will be paved with funding from state grants.

When the various projects are completed, FCRT will anticipates overseeing about 14 miles of trails extending from Baldwin Street Extension to Conneaut Cellars Winery & Distillery in Conneaut Lake. Long range plans call for eventually extending the trail another 8 miles to Linesville, where it will connect with more than 3 miles of existing trails.

For those familiar with the environment of the most commonly used section of Ernst Trail at the Bean's trailhead, the new French Creek Parkway trail will provide a new experience, Oven said.

"The site of that parkway is really nice," he continued. "It's very open and sunny when the sun is out, which is different from the current Ernst Trail, which for the most part is woodland."

The new trail also won't be as flat as existing sections of Ernst Trail, according to Oven, though the better views will reward the added exertion.

The creation of the trail and the reduction of the road way come at a cost that consists of more than just the millions of dollars that will be spent, according to West Mead Township Supervisor John Shartle. As PennDOT collected public input on the project in 2021, Shartle expressed a preference for maintaining the four-lane parkway's current setup. As the plan approaches reality, he remains skeptical. Instead of spending millions to repurpose half of the parkway, Shartle wondered, why not use that money for continued maintenance of the existing road?

French Creek Parkway north of Reynolds Avenue is used by about 5,000 vehicles each day, according to the latest PennDOT data. About 6.5 percent of the vehicles are trucks. That's down from 5,700 vehicles per day just a few years ago, when it was already in the department's lowest level of service category.

Shartle still worried that reducing traffic on French Creek Parkway would push heavy trucks to smaller roads in and near the city, thus defeating a primary purpose of creating the bypass in the first place. The bypass was also meant to accommodate and to spur growth in the region, he noted.

"I just hope we're not making a mistake for the future of Meadville," Shartle said.

Is the "road diet" a step away from growth, a step back from progress?

Growth isn't the only objective worth considering when planning for the future, according to Norwood.

"What we are finding in the community of planning and development is that we have designed consistently for growth instead of desiging for how we want our communities to change," he said. "What we are doing right now is we are exploring opportunities to adapt our communities to reflect the times we live in and to reflect the needs of our citizenry and our businesses."

People may differ on whether the changes represent progress, Norwood acknowledged.

"But," he added, "I think everyone would probably agree that having a community that is responsive to their wishes for what they want their lives to look like is probably a good thing."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.